The children were then given four tasks designed to measure what is called the "executive function" of the brain. The tasks included delay-of-gratification where the children had to wait for rewards, and a mathematical puzzle game called Tower of Hanoi, which requires children to move disks from one peg to another. The tests measure concentration, memory and learning, Lillard said.
The children's parents also were asked what programs their kids regularly watch and how much.
The children who watched "SpongeBob SquarePants" did significantly worse on the tasks than the children who watched the PBS program or drew. This finding held true even after taking into account how much TV a child typically watched, the researchers said.
Lillard advises parent to keep a careful eye on their child's behavior after watching fast-paced cartoons. "See if the child is having difficulty functioning at their normal level. If they are, they [parents] should be careful when they allow their children to watch such shows," she said.
Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis, George Adkins Professor and director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at the University of Washington and author of an accompanying journal editorial, called the study a "significant contribution to our knowledge of the effects of media on children."
"It is not all television that's bad, it's certain features of the medium that have potential adverse effects on children," he said. "Parents need to focus as much on the content and quality of the show as on the quantity."
Christakis said the young, developing mind can be overstimulated. Human brains aren't designed to process things at t
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